How Not to Poach a Unicorn


The five fugitives travelled through the night. Kazé was laid in the cart wrapped in several warm blankets. Princess Cariolta led the donkey while Prag scouted ahead and Kish trailed behind as a rearguard.

They moved as quickly and quietly over the darkened landscape as the donkey pulling the cart would allow. They were blessed by a heavily overcast sky which hid their passing from any eyes that might chance to cross the landscape. Unfortunately their efforts at stealth were wasted due to their witless companion. He was scampering here and there on all fours. He would stop to examine a pebble and then dash forward past the cart to explore some small divot in the dew covered fields. He was awkward and clumsy and his sword belt jangled like a jester’s bells.

Shortly before dawn they came across a small village of which they decided to stay out of sight by taking a wide arc around it. The princess was much relieved by this decision. She couldn’t bear facing the residents. She had naively believed Ashun lands to be filled only with monsters and cruel and evil men. Now she saw quaint farming villages, filled with wives, mothers and children all wondering when the next time would be that their man would be coming home on leave from the army. The town she was looking at now, so close to the prison, probably has more than a few new orphans and widows. She tried to wipe the guilt from her mind and focus on her own safety. But that was exactly the reason that these people would suffer—her own selfishness. Had she given herself up two weeks ago when they were first attacked, Kazé and Kish would probably be safe and some two hundred honourable soldiers would still be standing…and the world would have less one orphan rather than masses more. She wished that someone would talk. That someone would say something to bring her some hope or cheer or at least distraction from her remorse. Kish and Prag, however, were doing a fine job of scouting and guarding, leaving her alone to do the peasant’s task of tending to a weary mule.

By evening of the first day, they had reached the edge of the great forest that separated the kingdoms of Ashun and Haelund. Somewhere deep within that forest was the river that marked the border between the two. The forest was light and made for easy travelling at first, but as the light of day failed it became more overgrown. The ferns tangled in the wheels of the cart and the donkey was so exhausted that it was barely able to carry its own weight, let alone pull a cart.

Prag reached a rocky outcropping and stopped. He surveyed his party. The two women looked like the walking dead. They stumbled and tripped over every root and vine they came across several that weren’t there at all. Kish wasn’t going to do any good as a rearguard in this condition and he guessed that the Princess would soon be unable to carry her own weight. Kazé hadn’t shown any signs of regaining consciousness. His shallow breathing was the only indication that he was still alive. Dragging him in the cart over the increasingly uneven terrain would only serve to worsen his condition. He himself was barely able to stay clearheaded. Two days of torture followed by a life and death battle wasn’t his favourite way to prepare for a full night and day of marching.

The only one with any life left in him was the strange boy. He was still scampering around, much less clumsily than before, and showing no signs of tiring at all. Finally Prag made his decision, though he didn’t like it. “We have to stop.”

The two women nodded with tired agreement but lacked the vigour to do anything about it.

“Follow these rocks here west until you find a decent place to hide for the night.” Prag instructed. “I’m going to get rid of this poor animal and check if anyone has caught up with us yet”

“How do we know you won’t sell us out?” snapped Kish with a sudden bout of alertness.

“To whom would I sell you?” replied the mercenary dryly as he prepared a stretcher for Kazé. “Perhaps to one of the families of the guards I murdered yesterday?”

Kish was satisfied with his argument and began to pick her way across the ridge with her sleeping burden. Cariolta, however, found the comment to be a sharp twist to a knife already in her side. She followed Kish, hauling their bags full of food, drink, and blankets.

“If I’m not back by the time the moon is up, assume that something has gone wrong and get the hells out of here.” With that Prag turned back up the direction from which they had come.

The boy was very confused for a moment. All of a sudden the people He’d been with had separated. The tall one who had given him the clothes was going one way and the two softer looking ones were going another with the big, black, fuzzy thing in their arms.

He puzzled for some time about what to do. In a flash it became obvious. The man was going back the way the he’d come from. He’d seen that before. He would go with the other two so he could see new things. He was very happy.

For the first time ever, he was moving better than the others around him. They seemed to be very slow and clumsy on all these rocks. But he was moving easily on his hands and feet; bounding around without any trouble except for when the ground occasionally refused to support him. He felt a feeling of simple pride in his growing agility and grinned.

Eventually the two soft ones stopped in a cold dark place. It felt a lot like the place that he had been for the last… forever. He didn’t like that place. Maybe other people did like places like that. He couldn’t imagine why. They were uncomfortable and boring. He followed them in anyway.

He was rewarded for it too. They took some of the funny smelling strips that had been put in his room out of the bag they were carrying and shoved them in their face. Then they seemed to offer one to him. He took it carefully and examined it. It was dry and kind of reddish and its smell kind of tickled his nose. He copied them and took a bite out of it. It was incredible! It was flavour! He rolled on the floor in bliss as he chewed it. It tingled on his tongue and tasted like all the pretty colours of the cloak. He finished the whole strip of food and looked for more.

Instead they handed him a metal things with something clear and wet inside it. He watched as they tipped theirs gently into their mouths. He did the same, and nearly died. It poured into his throat and he choked and coughed and sputtered. This water was very tricky stuff. He considered the problem for a moment, and then put out his empty cup (as he had spilled the rest while coughing) for more. Much more carefully, he sipped at the water. It swirled in his mouth, cooled his throat and swam in his belly.

When he was finished, they took the cup from him and smiled at him. He liked that. They gave him a soft piece of fabric and wrapped it gently around him. Then the two of them took a similar thing and wrapped it around themselves and lay down with each other. He did the same and almost immediately fell into a deep and peaceful sleep, untroubled by the concerns of tomorrow.

Prag returned to find the boy sprawled out on a blanket breathing heavily. Kish had the Princess fast asleep in her lap and was staring blearily out the entrance of the cave. Though she looked defenseless, he noted that her hand had slid under some blankets as he approached. “Nice cave.” He whispered.

“It could use some curtains.” She mused, half asleep. “Are we safe?”

“For tonight I should think. We won’t be able to stay here for long. I scrapped the mule and the cart and hid our trail as best I could, but all they need is a half decent dog with them and they’ll be on us in no time.”

He set himself up in a nook close to the entrance of the cave, only half believing that he would actually wake up in time to do anything if they were discovered. His eyes drifted over his strange entourage: a princess who fought like a soldier, a lady in waiting that fought like a barbarian, an aging High Wolf in the company of humans, and a teenage boy who could crush rocks with his eyelids but was still figuring out how to walk. He knew from experience that a mystery was dodgy business.

He could extrapolate that when mysteries traveled in packs, the business became downright perilous. He resolved, as his consciousness slid out of his grasp, to sort out the terms of his contract first thing tomorrow.

Kish was the last to finally close her eyes. She was too tired to sleep and her mind was a clatter of dangers, some real, some imagined. She couldn’t decide if the two new men in her company were friend or foe. The mercenary was exactly as he appeared to be: ruthless, remorseless, and entirely for sale. If only they had something to buy him with, he would be a valuable ally. Unfortunately the only one with enough foresight to grab some valuables as they fled was the mercenary himself. The boy was even worse. She didn’t believe that he himself knew whether he was an ally or enemy. If she could have chosen, she would have sent him away. Cariolta wouldn’t have accepted it, though. She would never abandon an innocent in the wilderness. In addition the boy, purposefully or not, had saved them all. It was because of this that Kish herself was spared from the horrid whims of a mad wizard.

She watched the strange young man sleeping peacefully, without worry or doubt—his breaths even and comfortable. It was his childlike innocence that finally allowed Kish to relax enough to sleep, and to dream of home, and comfort.

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